What it means to care in a classroom

Rose has taught over several decades — from kindergarten and elementary writing to adult literacy — and has made some important contributions to the education field. He has written nearly a dozen books, including “The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker,” which demonstrated the heavy cognitive demands of blue-collar and service work and what it takes to do such work well, despite the tendency of many to underestimate and undervalue the intelligence involved in such work.

By Mike Rose

Care is a central tenet in the helping professions, most fully developed in education by the philosopher Nel Noddings. The way I see it, care in teaching is a special kind of care. To be sure, there is a positive regard for one’s students, a commitment to their social and emotional well-being. But there is another element to care, one less frequently discussed, and that is a commitment to students’ cognitive development. You are using your mind to foster the intellectual growth of others, to help them become better readers and writers and thinkers.

I’ve been thinking again about care in relation to today’s calls for racial justice, particularly the way justice is embodied and enacted in real time, in the moment. Consider, for example, how everyday, small interactions in teaching, many of them unplanned, some lasting less than a minute, can reveal a deep level of care and also serve larger egalitarian and emancipatory goals.

I want to use as an example a passage adapted from “Possible Lives” that takes place in Calexico, a city of 40,100 people on the California-Mexico border — the name fuses the Cal of California with the –exico of Mexico.

The central figure is Elena Castro, an extraordinary third-grade bilingual education teacher who also is a mentor to first-year teachers at her school. What I describe took place before 1998 when California passed Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative that in effect eliminated bilingual education in the state. In 2016, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 58, which restored bilingual education in California.

Before covid-19 pushed the realities of schooling into our kitchens and living rooms, we were surrounded by enchanted talk about a digital deliverance from the stodgy, old brick-and-mortar classroom. Covid-19 is making glaringly obvious the limitations of digital learning, particularly as the primary means of instruction.

While some of what we see Elena Castro do could occur online with a tech-savvy teacher and adequate technology equally distributed among students — these are two big conditions — there are other elements of Castro’s caring brilliance that could not be replicated on a screen.

It is often in commonplace encounters — a quick suggestion, an aside, a follow-up question — that a teacher’s most basic attitudes toward students are revealed. Big values are manifest in small actions, and Elena Castro was masterful at these spontaneous micro-lessons.

I watched her work with a boy who had written a shaggy dog story. Castro was slowly scrolling down the computer screen, praising the story as she read. Once done, about to move on to the next child, she tapped a key, taking the story back to a line at the beginning in which he described the dog as a “troublemaker.”

“You know,” she reflected, “I found myself wondering what your dog did that caused so much trouble?” “She tips over garbage cans,” the boy said. “Good. Anything else?” He giggled. “What?” she asked. “What is it?” “She makes messes!” Castro laughed. “Put that in, too! That way your reader will really know what you mean by trouble.”

Another time Castro was reading to the class in Spanish the story of a marvelous garden, and she came across a description of a beet that was six inches wide. She paused for a moment and reached across the table for a ruler. “Mija,” she said, addressing a girl with a term of endearment that means “my daughter.” “Show us how big that beet was.” The girl counted four, five, six on the ruler. “Whoa!” said a student sitting next to Castro. “Big, huh?”

And yet another time, Castro was working with a group of students on their marine research when a boy walked over from the Writer’s Table to get her attention: He needed a definition of admire. She looked up, defined it, and, as he was walking away, called to him and asked if he admired the farmer in a story they had read that morning. He turned back and thought for a moment: “No.” No he didn’t, thereby applying the new definition to a familiar character.

Castro assumed ability and curiosity in her students; learning, in her belief system, was an entitlement. As she put it, “You can’t deny anybody the opportunity to learn. That’s their right.” Bilingual education gained special meaning in this context. There is a long history in California schools, and Southwestern schools in general, of Mexican culture, language, and intelligence being deprecated. (Mexican children, one representative educator wrote in 1920, “are primarily interested in action and emotion, but grow listless under purely mental effort.”)

The profound limits on the quality of education that stemmed from such practice and perception made all the more understandable Castro’s commitment to bilingual education. Bilingual education was not just a method; it was an affirmation of cultural and linguistic worth, an affirmation of the mind of a people that had significant pedagogical consequences.

The majority of the children I saw in Castro’s classroom had entered in September with the designation “low achiever” or, in some cases, “slow learner.” Castro’s response was to assume that they had developed some unproductive habits and were sabotaging their own intelligence.

“The first two weeks, it was difficult,” she explained one noontime when we were sitting at the Writer’s Table in her classroom. “I’d put them here to write — and they’d fool around. It took them a while to figure it out, it took time, with me talking to them. ‘This is your education,’ I’d say. ‘It’s your responsibility. I’m here to support you, but you have to do the work.’”

It was warm that day, Castro’s sleeves rolled up. She spoke emphatically, with a nod or an exclamation or a quick laugh, her finger tapping the table, her hand slicing the air. “I had to keep some in at recess to finish the work. I had to talk to them. But then … look at them now. They’re bright kids. They’re not underachievers; they’re not slow. They were just used to doing what they could get by with.” Her room was constructed on work and opportunity. “You can’t say ‘I can’t’ in this classroom. You have to try.” And that cut both ways.

If you believe so firmly in the potential of all your students, you have few ready explanations for their failure. The first line of scrutiny is one’s self. “What you do is not necessarily good for everyone,” Castro would say. “You have to try different things. You have to ask yourself, ‘What can I change that will work for a child who’s not learning?’” When a student was not doing well, Castro would assume she was failing and put herself through a rigorous self-assessment. “Why am I not teaching him?” she would ask, her record book open, the child’s work spread out in front of her.

And sometimes the answer to Castro’s question revealed much that was out of her control, a fact illustrated through a story she told me about one of her students the year before, a sweet, quiet boy who seemed to understand his classwork, would do it when Castro was assisting him, but would just not complete it on his own.

“I didn’t know what to do to get him motivated,” she explained. “I tried structuring things more, and I tried letting him pursue whatever he wanted. He was a smart boy — I figured I must be doing something wrong. What was I missing?”

Then one day when Castro was sitting with him, encouraging him to write a little more on a story, he suddenly started crying. His mother had left home, and he was sent to stay with his grandmother. He missed his mother terribly and was afraid that his grandmother, who was ailing, would die and leave him alone. How could he concentrate, Castro thought, when his very security was threatened? This was beyond anything she could influence. It was telling, though, that Castro didn’t entirely let up.

She told him he could talk to her anytime he felt sad, and that she would ease off a little — on him, I suspect, more than herself — but that “they both had a responsibility to teach and learn,” and that the best thing he could do was to learn what he could so he would someday be able to take care of himself. “We both have to try,” she said, holding him, wanting to make for him, as best she could, her classroom a place of love and learning.

In Castro’s mind, the consequences for this child’s future of not learning to read and write and compute were too great to ignore, even in sorrow.

All this was what it meant to care.

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